CTO Download: City of Columbia CIO on keeping up with digital natives, pandemic

Columbia’s Chief Information Officer Jim Chapdelaine shares his insight on how cities can better integrate technology for mission-critical tasks


Jim Chapdelaine joined the City of Columbia as CIO four years ago. Image: Twitter

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The City of Columbia, Missouri, is the fourth most populous and fastest growing city in the state, with more than 125,000 residents. Recently, Gov1 had the opportunity to speak with Columbia’s Chief Information Officer Jim Chapdelaine.

Previous to becoming CIO four years ago, Jim spent 27 years with IBM as a programmer, technical support manager, account manager and executive, running technical support centers all over the world. In this interview, Jim shares his insights and experiences on how cities like Columbia utilize technology to help increase the transparency, engagement and service-level of municipal agencies, for the betterment of constituent and government staff alike.

From your perspective, how has IT’s role in government evolved over the last decade?

Chapdelaine: Over the past decade, IT has grown from a cost center and a side part of the business to a valued partner with the agencies and the city manager’s/administration’s office. IT has developed strategic partnerships with police, fire, utilities, community development, health, and, especially, with the finance, legal, and HR departments. We are now being consulted in the selection of software and technology projects and are providing the project management leadership necessary to keep the projects on target and under budget.

We have been preparing for events like this pandemic for years and now have proven that we can provide stellar telecommuting service for those positions that can work from home. The City Manager’s Office has really embraced technology and see it as a differentiator in providing the appropriate services for our community.”

Can technology play a role in helping governments and its citizens during pandemics like the Coronavirus?

Chapdelaine: Absolutely, converting to mobile devices, utilizing wireless connectivity and having the ability to remote into machines have all been instrumental in preparing our organization to be effective in providing all the services that our citizens/residents need. Migrating to apps for our community to use helps them stay focused on what is happening with the services provided and any changes that may occur or be occurring.

What are some innovative examples of your government utilizing technology?

Chapdelaine: Knowing that the residents in our community are primarily college-age students, we have had to develop apps that they can use on their phones. This technology has made it easier for us to interact with them, and it becomes much easier for them to pay bills, apply for business licenses, apply for food permits, etc.

We have made a big migration to shoring up our VPN and RDP technologies over the past year to allow our city staff to work effectively and securely from home. City staff are able to take their city-owned devices home, and once connected to their WiFi network, they connect automatically to our environment and become an extension of our network in our buildings. It makes it easy for them to work remotely with the same technology they use every day in the office.

We are also working on applications that will allow residents to take a picture of a pothole or a trash situation and send it to our contact center without typing an email, calling and waiting on a phone, etc. We are working on refreshing our 10-year-old website to be more mobile integrated as well — this will help our interaction with our residents, too.

We have an incredible GIS group who are building technologies around the science of where and these apps will help know where the issue is and get it to the right group to solve much quicker than older systems. We use maps to track our ballot initiatives and capital projects making it easier to see where the projects are in the city and also the current status of the project financially and construction phase-wise.

As an IT civic leader what are some emerging technologies that interest you and why?

Chapdelaine: Mobile devices, wireless connectivity, AI, and robotic technology are the wave of the future. We have migrated many of our office desktops to laptops over the past three years and made the transition to WFH orders easy. We are going to continue to drive interacting with the government as easy and convenient as possible. These technologies will allow us to do this.

I am still battling the fact that users want paper and can’t seem to understand digital is the best method to protect it, secure it, and ensure workflow is done as efficiently as possible. As we build artificial intelligence and robotic technology into our operation, there will be less need for many of the mundane positions that are very difficult to staff since we can’t pay enough to retain employees in these jobs.

Cybersecurity tools and products are also key to maintaining the safety of our city’s data and sensitive information. I always keep a close eye on these technologies to stay in front of the bad actors out there who may try to attack us.

When implementing or adopting new technologies what challenges have you had to overcome, any best practices learned?

Chapdelaine: Educating our less technologically inclined users, including department heads and city management, has been a bigger issue than I had imagined. We do have a technical trainer in our organization and by providing onsite training to our city staff has been extremely helpful as we migrate from older technologies to the newer ones. Some people do not accept change, and it was always easier the old way. Sometimes we have to use the heavy hand from up above (city manager) to make things happen. This has helped speed up some of the projects, but it could still be better.

Best Practices: Provide step-by-step instructions so they are fool proof. Provide technical instruction in a classroom setting that gets the end users away from the distractions of their office and time to focus on the training that they really need. Standardizing on platform, software (like going to Windows versus a mix), is really a help because we can prove that it saves us time, the user time, and money overall.

Listen to your Helpdesk staff as they are on the frontlines and know the issues and the solutions that are needed to reduce calls and make users more effective.

As a civic and technology leader what keeps you up at night?

Chapdelaine: The #1 issue that keeps me up at night is phishing emails and ransomware attacks. We train our city staff about staying alert to spear phishing attacks and never to click a link that they don’t know the source all the time. We have been fortunate as we have caught staff with our tests and have, yet, not had a real attack clicked or put into our system. We have great backups and good recovery processes in place, but the instant this situation happens, a cyber attack, it will be all hands on deck to get us back. My goal is within a day or two (or less), but that is the plan.

This pandemic event has helped every agency/department determine if their BCPs (business continuity plans) are in place and meet their needs. This was eye-opening for many of the departments.

The short answer though is: Security attacks on our environment.

Derek is a freelance writer, columnist and blogger. He is passionate about technology, and works with public sector customers on digital transformation programs.